Heart Of Football

McClaren strives for Twente-Twente vision at Newcastle

Imagine yourself in the shoes of Steve McClaren.

A nice guy who became an innovative coach, he enjoyed winning as Alex Ferguson's trusted assistant at Manchester United, only to be ridiculed as The Wally With The Brolly when his year as England's manager ended in a downpour of recrimination in 2007.

McClaren had to go abroad, to FC Twente in Holland and Wolfsburg in Germany, to rebuild his career. He returned to a former club, Derby County, where he finished agonisingly short of promotion, but rebounded again to be given the top job at Newcastle United.

Newcastle is a big club living in the shadow of its former glory.

It needs only a glimmer of hope to revive the passion of more than 52,000 fans in the most northern city of England - a city with only one major team to follow.

Today, Newcastle United versus Norwich City is the only Premier League game in sight. It has the global TV coverage to itself because all the top teams are engaged in Europe in the coming days, and wanted to get the weekend games out of the way yesterday.

So Newcastle "Magpies" versus Norwich "Canaries" it is.

McClaren's line-up in recent weeks has been decimated by as many as

13 senior pros under treatment - and that, too, got no better during the international team break. He lost goalkeeper Tim Krul when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament while on duty with the Netherlands in Kazakhstan last week.

I'll be honest. I have an affection for both clubs for different reasons. Newcastle because of its history, and its people: The coal mines and the shipyards were once the bedrock of a community that worked hard Monday to Saturday, and crammed into St James' Park to roar on "the Lads" on a Saturday afternoon.

Norwich because it is like a welcoming country cousin, a club on the east coast that had mostly modest expectations. It lived largely on modest means, aspired to the odd FA Cup sortie, and little by little lifted itself up to the big league, playing decent football.

So do I care who wins today at St James' Park? Actually, for McClaren and for his battered team, I do.

The manager, perhaps this time correctly described as the head coach, is having a beast of a baptism on Tyneside.

After eight games, and no wins, Newcastle lies anchored to the bottom of the table, their worst start in 117 years.

McClaren is getting it in the neck for not being a man of words. Certainly he is no Jose Mourinho, no Juergen Klopp in front of the media.

"The first eight games were very difficult, very tough," he said on TV. "They proved that. We've had setbacks and good performances. But we said after Man City that our season begins now."

He paused, then added: "It has kind of been an extended pre-season, and now we have to start playing."

The Wally! Telling Newcastle folk that the real season starts now, without a win on the board from eight games and two months into the campaign, is not great oratory.

It gets worse.


McClaren cannot promise them that he knows how to turn things around, or to heal the wounds. "As long as we are making progress - which I believe we are and they (the board) believe we are, then we keep going," he said.

The excuses are plenty and real enough.

Like last season, and the seasons before, the Magpies seem to be attempting to fly on broken wings. McClaren's line-up in recent weeks has been decimated by as many as 13 senior pros under treatment - and that, too, got no better during the international team break.

He lost goalkeeper Tim Krul when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (one of the most feared injuries in the game) while on duty with the Netherlands in Kazakhstan last week.

"A massive, massive blow for us," the head coach told reporters. "Tim's down, and so are we. The way he played, he was worth 18 to 20 points a season for us. It's devastating."

Hardly a ringing endorsement, you might feel, for Rob Elliot, the 29-year-old understudy who steps between the posts today, and possibly until January when, rumour has it, Newcastle will go out and recruit Victor Valdes, the unwanted keeper at Man U.

Elliot has played 16 EPL games since he moved to Newcastle four seasons ago.

And he steps into a defence that conceded six goals at Manchester City in the last game - five of them to Sergio Aguero after Newcastle had provoked City by scoring first.

That is another bad trait Newcastle can't shake off this season. They led 2-0 in the previous home game against Chelsea, and ended up drawing 2-2.

Feeling sorry for the head coach or for the team doesn't win any points. The medical situation is another alarming habit that has dogged Newcastle under the past five or six managerial reigns.

Many of them are muscle tears or strains, but McClaren, remember, is a coach who studies everything in his field. He was chosen by Sir Alex because of his thoroughness, his attention to fine detail and, yes, his genuine personality.

At Old Trafford, McClaren could play good cop to Fergie's more fiery nature. And it worked to the point where senior players, from Ryan Giggs down, would entrust "Steve" with their grumbles about the tea cup- or boot-throwing tyrant that Ferguson was on occasion.

Good medicine is also a part of preparation these days. McClaren sought to fix that by taking to Newcastle his own fitness guru, the Brazilian sports scientist Alessandro Schoenmaker.

They worked together at Twente, at Wolfsburg and at Derby. And none of those had the run of injuries like the one currently stretching Newcastle to breaking point.

Maybe it's a curse. Perhaps someone up there doesn't care for the way that Mike Ashley, a business entrepreneur from down south, runs Newcastle as the owner.

McClaren insists that all's well and the board knows there have to be changes in the January transfer window. He expects to be in charge then because, he says, the loyalty shown to previous managers is what drew him to Newcastle.

Not all of the 10 managers hired and moved on during Ashley's eight-year ownership see it that way. Loyalty, stability and the winning habit start from the top.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'McClaren strives for Twente-Twente vision at Newcastle'. Print Edition | Subscribe